For an 18-year-old goalkeeper in Indian football, Manipur-born Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem has done pretty well so far in his career.
Dheeraj started all three games for India at the U-17 FIFA World Cup and after a short training stint at Scottish Premiership club Motherwell FC, he joined Indian Super League (ISL) side Kerala Blasters in early 2018.
After beating 29-year-old custodian Naveen Kumar to the first-choice goalkeeper spot at Blasters under David James, newly appointed coach Nelo Vingada also has preferred the youngster to new recruit Lalthuammawia Ralte in the starting lineup in his first two matches at the club. Dheeraj has started nine matches this season, conceding 14 goals.
It has been a season to forget for Blasters, with the club out of the running for the playoffs and winless in 13 matches. But Dheeraj has shown glimpses of his brilliance in between the sticks and while there is plenty more to come from the lad, he is already defying critics by being the youngest first-choice goalkeeper in the ISL.
"The first thing that an athlete needs to is to focus and to do the basic things right. It is very simple. Playing in the U-17 World Cup helped me gain a lot of confidence to play at the highest level. It helped me to be a better person," Dheeraj told Goal .
"The most important thing for a goalkeeper is to keep things simple, that is the main thing. To focus on what we can do rather worrying about others.
"It has been a good experience for me, playing in ISL for the first time. I have learned a lot of positive and negative things. It is a part of the game where, when we look, as a team, we haven't gone the right way. We lost games and there have been games where we could have won. Can't do anything but still, the important thing for me is to focus on doing my things correctly.
"Most of the people said that I am too young. You need to have a strong mentality. I was looking smaller so I put weights on me. After every game, I tried to improve."
Only ATK have scored fewer goals this season than Blasters but they find themselves sixth on the table and have an outside chance in the race for the playoffs due to their near watertight defence. For any goalkeeper, it is difficult to helplessly watch his teammates create plenty of chances and fail repeatedly in scoring them.
"It happens a lot. It is not a good feeling for us when the strikers are not scoring goals. But you can't have everything going the way you want it to go in life. I focus on my goalkeeping, one goal might kill the game and one save could change the game. It's very important to stay alert to prevent goals. Despite strikers not scoring goals, we need to stay focused till the last minute."
Of the 14 goals let in by Dheeraj, six goals were scored by Mumbai City when Kerala Blasters travelled to Mumbai before the break.
"It was a terrible night for me as well as the whole team. For the second goal, I gave the ball away. I put my hand up and took the responsibility. We killed ourselves early in the game. I was not able to get to the ball. It was a big lesson for me to avoid taking risks in my own half."
Goalkeepers are often required to command the area, especially during defensive set-piece scenarios. Despite being a teenager, Dheeraj says he has been able to improve on that aspect, with no shortage of help from former Liverpool goalkeeper and former Blasters head coach David James.
"Age is just a number. When I got into the team, it was a bit difficult to command the defenders. But when we train with the players, they ask me to speak about what I want. It gives me confidence. I felt the pressure initially but it's okay.
"It was honestly a great experience to work with David James. I was lucky enough to have him here at the club. Especially for a goalkeeper, because we can look up to him every day for motivation. He really inspired us, goalkeepers. I felt motivated. He helped us a lot despite the results."
Dheeraj also touched upon attending trials at foreign clubs. Delhi Dynamos are set to release Lallianzuala Chhangte for trials at Viking FK and Dheeraj believes it will be for the greater good.
"It is always good to go out and explore yourselves. Whether we make it or not is a different thing. The experience we get as a footballer, the footballing culture there is very different. Playing with quality players at a high level will definitely give us confidence. We can know our weak points and we have time to develop. I wish him all the very best, I hope he makes it."